In 1952, Richard Nixon was running for vice-president – he was accused of stealing $18,000 of campaign contributions for his own use, so he went on TV.
He compared the gift of money to the gift of a dog his family had received: “It was a little Cocker Spaniel dog, in a crate a man had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, six years old, named it Checkers.
“And, you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that, regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.”
Nixon’s speech worked and he became vice-president.
Nixon had sidestepped the missing $18,000 by setting up a false argument next to it.
This is known as the “straw man” fallacy.
In order to win an argument, you don’t argue directly with the point being made, you set up something that looks similar next to it – a straw man that you can destroy easily.
The original argument still stands, but the destruction of the straw man makes it look as if you’ve won.
The straw man is one of Donald Trump’s favourite devices.
When Democrats wanted tighter gun controls, Trump said they wanted to take away every American’s right to bear arms, although this wasn’t what they said.
When Democrats objected to his anti-immigration wall, he said they wanted to throw America’s borders open to everyone, again not at all what they’d said.
By avoiding the actual subject, Trump sets up a separate argument that is easier to destroy and allows him to avoid debating the actual point being made.
Straw-manning is one of the main devices used to win arguments in advertising.
As long as I’ve been in advertising, all the best people have accepted as fact that most advertising is ignored, and the first job of any advertising is to get noticed.
As Bill Bernbach said: “If no-one notices your advertising, everything else is academic.”
That’s not difficult is it – if no-one sees your ad, how can it work?
A few years back, a researcher gave me some numbers on this: “4% of advertising is remembered positively, 7% is remembered negatively, 89% isn’t noticed or remembered.”
Those numbers tell us what we already know, that most advertising is ignored.
But when I mention it, people don’t engage with “Why are most ads invisible and what can we do about it?”
The first question is usually a straw man question: “What’s the source of those numbers?”
Let me ask, if we know the source of those numbers, will it help solve the problem?
We each see approximately 1,000 advertising messages a day – how many can you name from yesterday, try it now?
I bet you can’t name 10, but even if you could that would be just 1%.
So the actual problem is a lot worse than those numbers.
Knowing the source of the numbers doesn’t matter, it won’t help us solve the problem, it will just distract us from the actual problem.
And distracting us from the problem seems to be the main job of marketing.
Don’t worry about solving the problem, let’s investigate some more data.
As if finding out whether the real number of ads being ignored is 87%, 88% or 89% will make any difference, we’ll still avoid trying to fix it, we’ll just keep measuring it.
That’s the main problem with advertising’s straw man, we don’t engage with the actual problem, we set up something next to it and debate that instead.
So we never have to engage with the actual problem, just the illusion that we have.
It reminds me of the quote about why you should never play chess with a pigeon.
Because the pigeon knocks all the pieces over, shits all over the board, then struts around like it won the game.
Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three